Smarthistory at the Portland Art Museum

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1914-15 (Portland Art Museum)

This post was co-written by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

Mt. Rainier is currently on our right as we fly back to NYC from Portland by way of Seattle. We were privileged to spend the last few days at the Portland Art Museum with a group of dedicated educators, docents and curators. Our visit was the brainchild of Tina Olsen, the Director of Education and Programs, who thought there might be value in creating Smarthistory-style conversations for the museum—and wanted to test out her theory. We in turn, saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap that exists between art historians in higher education and those in the museum world. Thanks to a generous grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, we worked closely with Tina to design and execute an intensive two-day workshop to help educators, curators and docents develop the skills needed to create and produce interpretive content in the form of conversation that focused on their rich permanent collection.

Our goals included working across museum departments (with expert and non-expert voices) and opening up interpretation to emotion and opinion—in essence modeling thoughtful and exploratory conversations to invite museum visitors to discover collection objects on their own. While we have a clear sense that Smarthistory videos are engaging and helpful for art history students and informal learners, we had no real sense of how and if they would be successful in a museum context or how they might be transformed by other museum professionals. We were also excited to have two non-Western curators amongst the participants; we have been very curious to understand how our conversations would play out with art that was not part of the Western tradition.

So, this was an experiment—for both Smarthistory and for the Portland Art Museum—and no one was quite sure where it would leave us. We have already begun evaluating how successfully we achieved our goals and will continue in follow-up surveys and interviews. We’ll make sure to post all results here, and plan to develop a related “How-To” section on the Smarthistory site this summer for museums that might want to replicate what we did, though it became very clear to us that having experienced facilitators from the outside was extremely valuable.

Since this was new territory for all of us; we prepared carefully and even assigned preparatory “homework”—articles by Rika Burnham (Frick Collection) and Peter Samis (SFMoMA). The homework focused on museum interpretation and included audios and videos from the Eastman House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Smarthistory and covered a wide range of styles. Some were long, some short, some were conversations while others were lectures and interviews. For our icebreaker we asked each workshop participant to bring in a reproduction of an object that had personal meaning to them—these also formed the basis of the first audio recording.

Over the course of the two days, each participant had four opportunities to create recordings in the galleries followed by time to listen, reflect and discuss. We experimented with different pairings—curator/curator, curator/educator, educator/educator, educator/docent, and docent/docent. In some pairings an object would be intimately familiar to one of the speakers, while in others, the object was less familiar to both. We also took turns in the mix.

What we didn’t anticipate was how much fun everyone would have. Taking time from busy schedules, going out into the galleries, talking to colleagues about beautiful and interesting objects that they feel a strong sense of attachment to, and creating and editing video that would live on the website—proved a surprisingly pleasurable experience. Several participants described the workshop as therapeutic and restorative.

In our discussions, we explored the following questions –

• Where should the media we created reside—on the website and/or in the galleries? How would it be accessed it the galleries?
• What formats (audio or video, long or short) would be best for those different settings?
• What style was best—an exploratory conversation or a relaxed interview? Is style tied to the purpose of the recording (a gallery overview, to model discovery, or an in-depth explication)?
• Does the conversation’s style depend on the speakers’ roles (docents, curators, educators—or a combination of those) and/or their familiarity and expertise with the object that was discussed?
• What visual material is most useful in the gallery versus on the website? Should visual material be offered in the gallery? If so, what kind of material would be best? Should we use a combination of photos of the image and video of the speakers?

We recognize that museum professionals in both education and curatorial departments don’t have the time and perhaps the confidence to learn new technologies unless they see first hand a substantial benefit. We were able to demonstrate strategies for creating engaging interpretive content as well as how to publish high quality video for in-gallery and web distribution. Video and audio production is still veiled in jargon and is viewed as an extremely expensive undertaking that is best left to IT departments and outside consultants.

We took a different approach. Our workshop sought to empower the curatorial and education departments with conversational strategies and inexpensive easy-to-use equipment and software. Very quickly, curators were planning future recordings while after the first brief lesson, two educators were confidently editing audio while zooming and panning across still images.

Please let us know if you have questions about the workshop, or if you are interested in running one at your institution.

Warm thanks to Christina Olsen, Bruce Guenther, Gerri Hayes, Kate Burns, Stephanie Parrish, Floyd Sklaver, Jillian Punska, Amy Gray, Maribeth Graybill, & Anna Strankman.

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One Comment on “Smarthistory at the Portland Art Museum”

  1. Tina Olsen
    May 12, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Great summary, Beth & Steven! I think the workshop successfully tackled the question of how technology can be used to open up interpretation to multiple voices, yes, but it also provided a model for how technology can accommodate the social and collaborative component of the museum visit. One of the most frustrating problems with audioguides has always been how isolating they can be for visitors–how much they inhibit conversation, and imply a single, or dominant, meaning for works of art. By placing a conversation in the galleries instead, between people who are named and identified (not the anonymous and institutional voice of the museum), the hope is to model critical looking and talking, rather than announcing an object’s meaning, and thereby give people tools for their own experiences in museums–based on looking closely, talking about what they see, and coming to their own ideas about what the object means.

    But the other huge takeway for me from the workshop was how important, even therapeutic, it is to think and talk about works of art with a broad range of colleagues. I really felt like we gave each other the experience we hope our visitors might have, as a way of putting ourselves in our visitors shoes, absolutely, but also as a way of empowering more people, and more perspectives–from docents to curators to educators– to really take on the question of how we facilitate and enable people’s meaningful experiences with works of art. So, we’re thinking about how we continue the effort as an internal practice as well as a means of creating interpretive modules for our publics.

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